The Era of Voice Synthesizers Is Here

On many, if not most, recent pop records, the instrumental sounds are produced by digital programs with no acoustic instruments in sight. Now we can start getting used to the idea of vocals that are synthesized in the same way.

In truth, mechanical singing voices in music go back a lifetime. Moody Blues keyboardist Michael Pinder used an early sample-playback synthesizer, based on magnetic tape, to add an ethereal chorus to many of that band’s songs. It was a sound that music fans were familiar with by 1969, and though the chorus could not be expected to sing anything more than “ah,” “oh,” and “ooh,” it was still an impressive effect.

Digital sample playback was a regular part of musical equipment by 1981, and synthesized vocal choruses advanced to “ooh” to “dooh.” With further advances, by 2002, synthesizers could sing real words, though getting these voices to sound even slightly natural and human took a lot of work. It did not always matter. The backing vocal group on a heavy metal record could barely be heard over the guitars and drums, so no one was asking for it to sound natural, just intelligible.

Over the years the process of voice synthesis has gotten easier and the results are more and more convincing. This month there is a lot of buzz around Hollywood Backup Singers, the latest in a series of plugin vocal instruments. The “backup” in the product name is a bit of an understatement. The three digital singers, with voices modeled after real singers, are convincing enough that they might provide lead vocals in a setting where a specific musical personality is not a requirement, for example, in a commercial jingle or a song in an EDM style. And the price for the plugin vocal instrument is less than a record producer would pay one singer to sing on one song.

Simply put, you will get used to hearing these singing voices. And it is just a matter of a few more years before vocal instruments will be flexible enough to model the vocal tone af any singer you choose. The new flawless vocal tracks from famous singers will be not merely the result of pitch correction, but may be programmed from beginning to end, with no actual singing on a record.

Music fans may complain about the fakery, but the recent trend in pop music has been to remove the uncertainty of actual musical performance from music production as much as possible. It is a way to cut costs and reduce risks. The trend reaches its logical conclusion when a record has not only no instrumentalists, but no singers either. This is a trend that gives every indication of carrying on for a few more years.

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